Of the people, for the people, by the journalists

Jim Cameron looks at Cranbrook's first newspapermen in Janus: Then and Now

The first of three Herald offices and one of the very first buildings in Cranbrook.

The first of three Herald offices and one of the very first buildings in Cranbrook.

Jim Cameron

Volume 1, Number 1, the first issue of the Cranbrook Herald newspaper, was published on March 22, 1898. Considering all that has occurred in the ensuing 115 years, that first paper to roll of the press marked a historic moment in Cranbrook’s history.

F.E. Simpson, Herald publisher, editor and, no doubt, chief bottle-washer, may have paused briefly to appreciate the moment but it is unlikely his mind was concerned with history. He was most likely concerned with selling enough papers to publish the second issue of the newspaper one week later. (The Herald continued with only minor interruptions for another 27 years.)

The initial issue boasted, “The Cranbrook Herald has a guaranteed weekly circulation of 1,000 copies. As an advertising medium, therefore, it is at the head of the list. Write for rates.”

Write for rates, indeed. The twenty or thirty people living in town at the time would merely have had to cross the empty lots to the newly erected Herald building and ask Editor Simpson exactly what his rates were.

The remaining 1,000 copies were either mailed to pre-subscribers (highly unlikely), distributed to all and sundry throughout the district (possibly), or didn’t come anywhere near the 1,000 mark (likely).

Still, it looked good in print and was meant to attract the eye of any and all possible settlers reading from afar. Editor Simpson knew how to spin the spin: encouraging, enticing, bold, even brazen by today’s standards, not necessarily entirely factual but not exactly fiction either.

Much of it was mere speculation of course, as there was little happening in Cranbrook at the time that might be called news, but in the hands of an experienced newspaperman, even the mundane glitters and shines.

As far as local history goes, if all the newspapers published in Cranbrook over the last 115 years suddenly disappeared, it would leave a huge gap in our local history.

There are many other resources, of course – letters, books, memoirs, museum holdings, oral histories and so on – but the thing about the newspapers is they were always there, providing the news on a day-to-day basis.

Accurate? Perhaps best to double-check the facts. Useful? Certainly. Entertaining? Indeed. The newspapers reflected the opinions and social mores of their writers and were openly, nay, blatantly, biased in terms of politics, religion, race and pretty much any other subject one cares to name.

Still, the common factor among all the editors of the day was a steadfast belief in the certainty of Cranbrook’s success, a commitment to the town and its people.

“If a man should traverse all of East Kootenay from the north to the south and from the east to the west, in search of the best natural location for townsite, a place to which there could be no possible objection, one in fact that would be ideal in every way, he could find just one, and only one,” declared the first editorial published. “There are others that have many attractive features, but none that combine every good feature that is considered requisite for a satisfactory townsite, except that on which Cranbrook is located.

“The first impression one receives as he emerges from the wooded country on either side, is that nature had intended this spot for the building of a great city. A level prairie of 360 acres, undulating enough to give ample drainage for sanitary purposes, traversed by three clear mountain streams, with a yield of 700 inches of the best of water, and having two magnificent, never freezing springs, sending forth a volume of water large enough to supply thousands, with a beautiful grove in the centre, and a forest of great pines, monarchs of the mountains, skirting the edges, and thus you a have a hasty picture of the grandest site nature ever created for the homes of a large populace and seat of thriving industries.”

The editorial carries on unstintingly, Cranbrook as an agricultural, mining, residential, business and economic Utopia. In short, Cranbrook as the geographical centre of pretty well everything.

It was effusive, enticing, full of promise and somewhere within range of the truth at the time.

Editor Frederick. E. Simpson (generally referred to as “The Old Man,” although he was 35 years old at the time) continued to boost Cranbrook and its people for the duration of his tenure.

The noted editors of the day – Mr. Simpson of the Cranbrook Herald, A.B. Grace of the Fort Steele and Cranbrook Prospector, F.J. Smyth and L.P. Sullivan of the Cranbrook Courier to name a few – all had plenty to say and their own literary vehicle with which to say it.

They stood on soapboxes of a size that put politicians to shame and decried their opinions on all and sundry and while doing so placed Cranbrook foremost in the minds of the readers and, with any luck, sold newspapers.

It was a symbiotic relationship, the newspaper sold the town and the town bought the newspaper, often on credit, leaving the newspapermen scrabbling to put together the next issue, a task in which they rarely failed.

The legacy of the men and women of the Fourth Estate lays hidden in drawers, placed ever-so-carefully in scrapbooks, framed on walls and stored in dusty closets.

The papers may be old and frail, the writers long gone, but they wrote of the deeds and the deeds live on.

Next Week: Hot Off the Press